–May of 2001
A Word for Men and Movements
Dr. Paul Brand tells a story of his most memorable visitor to his leprosy hospital in Vellore, India. One day a French friar named Pierre showed up wearing a monk’s habit and carrying a carpetbag that contained everything he possessed. Pierre was born into French nobility and he had served in the French parliament. After WWII, while Paris was still reeling from the German occupation, parliament faced a serious problem of thousands of homeless beggars in the streets. While the politicians and noblemen debated their plight, the beggars starved or froze to death in the street. Disillusioned with the slow pace of political response, and desperately wanting to help the street people, Pierre resigned his post and became a Catholic friar to work among them. Failing to interest politicians or the community in the beggars’ plight, he concluded his only recourse was to organize the beggars themselves. He taught them to do menial tasks better. Instead of sporadically collecting bottles and rags, he divided them into teams to scour the city. Next they built a warehouse from discarded bricks and started a business in which they sorted and processed vast quantities of used bottles from hotels and businesses. Finally, Pierre inspired each beggar by giving him responsibility to help another beggar poorer than himself. Pierre’s project caught fire.
After years of successful work, Pierre suddenly awakened to the fact there were no beggars left in Paris. “I must find somebody for my beggars to help!” he declared. “If I don’t find people worse off than my beggars, this movement could turn inward. It will become a powerful, rich organization and the whole spiritual impact will be lost. My beggars will have no one to serve.”
It was this fear that brought Pierre to the leper colony. It was at the leper colony that he found the solution to his crisis in Paris. Returning to France and to his beggars, he mobilized them to build a ward at the hospital in Vellore. “No, it is you who have saved us,” he told the grateful recipients of his gift in India. “We must serve or die.”
Pierre possessed a crucial insight into what keeps both men and movements alive spiritually. Good men can get so caught up in wanting God to do something for them, they forget that God’s main work is to do something through them. The more a person reaches out beyond themselves, the more enriched they become and the more they grow in likeness to God. The more we turn inward, or “incurve”, the less Christlike, even less human, we become.
Movements are the same way. When a movement turns its focus inward and concentrates on preservation, it will become stymied and begin the death process. Even though it may report financial or numerical gains, it is dying all the while. It has “incurved”.
The Western church needs no more urgent message than the message of servanthood. We share a planet with three billion people who earn less than $2 per day. We live in a world in which 40,000 children die every day from hunger and disease. Our inner cities are filled with millions of people who have no saving knowledge or understanding of Jesus Christ not to mention serious educational and physical needs. All the while we are spending record amounts on ourselves and on the edifices in which we worship. Maybe we need to listen to Pierre and be reminded that the need to serve is fundamental to Christian life and that the act of serving is the very thing that keeps us alive. “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”